BY RICKY POLLITT
As a fan and supporter of the Salisbury University basketball teams, I traveled to Maggs late on Wednesday evening for the Midnight Madness event, and to get a first glimpse of the 2015 men’s basketball team.
Surrounded by a crowd of SU students, myself and others watched as the men’s and women’s basketball team battled it out in a ten minute scrimmage. In a casual five-on-five matchup, fans were able to see players dunk, take wild three-point shots and even try to show off with some trick plays.
As I watched, there was one player that I noticed right away was absent from the action; forward Wyatt Smith, the player who in my opinion was the MVP for Salisbury last season.
Given Smith’s 6’5” height, long beard and hair, I was able to point him out early on the sidelines keeping score of the game.
“Oh, the coaches are being smart and not risking an injury to their star player by having him partake in a silly scrimmage,” I thought to myself.
As I was leaving the Midnight Madness event, I asked a reliable source why Smith had been held out.
To my complete shock and surprise, I was told Smith was out for the year with a shoulder injury; an injury that could put Salisbury out of the playoffs before the season even begins. Now, I don’t want anyone to think I don’t have faith in the maroon and gold. SU has some great talent and great coaches that could get the Gulls back to the NCAA tournament.
That, however will become a much greater challenge with the absence of Smith.
His loss to the team is detrimental. Smith came to SU last season as a transfer student from Harford Community College and made his presence known immediately.
He missed the first four games of the season last year with an injury, and the Sea Gulls went 2-2 in his absence. While Smith battled back, Salisbury went on a three game losing streak and started the season 2-5. Luckily though, Smith found his groove.
Over the next four months, watching Smith was like watching a pro play against school boys; he just couldn’t be stopped. In the 2014 season, he led his team in almost every category including points (382), points per game (14.7), rebounds (206) and blocks (32).
Smith truly put the team on his back. Granted, “there is no I in team,” but with Salisbury there sure was a W.Y.A.T.T. When Smith was on, the team was on. When he was off, the team was off.
To me, Smith’s defining moment came in the last seconds of the CAC championship game against Christopher Newport.
Down one, with less than a second on the clock, CNU made the mistake of fouling Smith and sending him to the foul line. One at a time, he made each of his shots, and sent the Sea Gulls to NCAA tournament for the first time in years.
In their first game of the tournament, where they faced Eastern Conn. St, Smith put up 37 of the teams 66 points; yes you read that correctly.
Now with the 2015 season just three weeks away from kicking off, Salisbury coaches and players are wondering, who’s going to step up?
Again, this team has the talent. Gordon Jeter and Justin Witmer are two players that come to mind. Both excel in different areas, and can balance one another out. Justin May and Jordan Brooks are another pair that impressed me at Wednesday’s Midnight Madness, but is it enough to replace Smith?
Another player fans should keep an eye on is Jacoy Gillum. Probably the closest to Smith in size, Gillum was a player who came off the bench and replaced Smith during games last season. With the injury, Gillum could show his true talent and potential and become a star player, in his own regard.
What also concerns me about this team is not only the loss of Smith, but the loss of head coach Josh Merkel who packed up and went to coach at Randolph-Macon.
Salisbury did a great job in bringing in Andrew Sachs, who has plenty of experience and success. I don’t know Sachs very well, but he seems to bring similar intensity and determination that Merkel brought to the table.
What cannot be replaced though is Merkel’s passion. Josh Merkel may be the most passionate man I’ve ever met. He is truly a player’s coach, and cares so much about not just winning, but the well-being of his players, coaches and students.
During a loss, Merkel never shouted, or pointed fingers, but simply moved on to the next game.
I interviewed Smith after the championship game last year, and what he told me Merkel said to him still sticks with me today.
“Coach looked at me and told me he loved me,” Smith said. “I felt really empowered by that situation, and a lot of players really get caught up in the moment. Take (the shots) one at a time and shoot them.”
The losses of Smith and Merkel will without a doubt not go unnoticed. However, given the talent Salisbury has, and the recent success these players have displayed, the season may just go in their favor.
Maybe they can overcome this adversity. Maybe this will be a season to remember.